BANGKOK - Thailand's military government this week approved a $23 billion, eight-year plan to upgrade the national railway system, marking another effort to boost and reshape the economy.
The eight-year spending program covers a broad upgrade to much of the rail network, including high-speed rail eventually linking up with China. It will connect to Thailand’s industrialized eastern seaboard and northeastern regions.
The plans indicate how authorities are preparing for the ASEAN Economic Community that, in 2015, will begin dropping trade barriers to boost Southeast Asian nations’ economic links, said Luxman Attapich, an Asian Development Bank economist.
"The military administration and their advisers really value connectivity,” Attapich said. “They are thinking about regional cooperation and connectivity within the region."
Expanding ties with China
Since seizing power May 22 after months of political turmoil, the military has stepped up economic and business ties with China and looked into increasing agricultural exports, especially rice, under government-to-government deals.
The previous civilian government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra also launched a transportation spending bill. But the $65 billion program was criticized for a lack of transparency and courts later invalidated the plan.
Many hope the military will provide greater transparency in overseeing projects, said Adrian Dunn, CEO of the investment management group Brooker Dunn Asset Advisory.
"What people are waking up to is that these people may actually have some quite sensible plans for the economy,” Dunn said at a recent economics conference, “and that you can actually spend for instance 20 percent less on infrastructure and get 10 percent more if you don't spend 45 percent in bribes."
The military has made the economy a priority after Thailand fell into recession in the first quarter as confidence slipped amid political conflict and anti-government protests.
Criticism of the government and its policies has been muted since authorities effectively outlawed public dissent. But a former finance minister cautions the junta against focusing too much on economic reforms. Instead, it should ensure political stability ahead of general elections, he said.
"There's a great temptation by both the private sector and by those in power to try to push through all kinds of large projects, said Korn Chatikavanij, who served in the Democrat Party-led government until 2011. “That's well and good, but I don't think it's the most productive use of their time. I don't think their job is to make economic decisions. Their job is to correct a political system that wasn't functioning."
But the military is pressing ahead with spending on new rail locomotives, major highway renovation and electric rail routes in Bangkok.